Winston Churchill said to improve is to change and to be perfect is to change often. In his book Hitch-22, Christopher Hitchens reflects on a caption of an old photo of himself that mistakenly calls him “the late Christopher Hitchens,” as in dead. He acknowledges that the photo “is of someone else, someone who doesn’t really exist in the same corporeal form. The cells and molecules of my body have replaced themselves and diminished (respectively).”
So if the people we were 20 years ago are absolutely not who we are today, why do we cling to our bad habits? Why do we fear change so much? Maybe it’s all too much to confront. Or maybe because the world keeps giving us reasons to think nothing is changing. From the antebellum sensibilities of the mobs at Trump rallies to the latest iteration of The Lion King, it does feel like we tedious humans are just perpetually repeating ourselves.
Sometimes it’s touching, like when I see my husband in Dexter’s loping walk, or when Julius makes a wisecrack that’s a 21st Century version of the funny stuff my brother used to say.
Sometimes it’s not touching. Like when I ask my kids every morning to not leave the bath towel on the bedroom carpet, or when I am pushing all my bought and bagged groceries out of the Stop-n-Shop and realize I forgot to buy the one fucking thing I went there to get. (Yes, I do this all the time. Yes, I bring a list. Don’t @ me.)
It’s easy to think nothing is changing ever, on a macro or micro level. When my sons lay about all day, naked save their boxers and a furry blanket, binge-watching Stranger Things and eating chips, I catapult back to the summer of 1984, when my brother and I were just as lazy and annoying. We are just replaying the same scene but I’m in a new role; or are we?
My family now is different than my family then. In intangible ways, and tangible: I was never shipped off like Julius, to help build houses for the poor in Appalachia; I never took my summer job as seriously as Dexter does being a camp counselor to 6- and 7-year-olds. I was a half-hearted Gap employee, clipboard-folding sweatshirts until my eyeballs bled from the tedium.
Turn and face the strange
An awareness of how much stays the same is sometimes the best way to pinpoint what’s different and what needs changing. I’m 90% ok with who I am, and realizing that mostly I don’t need to change makes it easier to work on the horrendous 10%. I’m working on embracing all kinds of change these days since at the tender age of 50 I’ve finally learned that there’s no resisting it. What I’m resisting instead is to get discouraged by how much things seem the same; the wet towels on the carpet, the ignorance of the mob, my own capacity for distraction.
Novels love change. Every protagonist needs an arc, after all. But novels also depend on familiar patterns; “they” say there are only seven basic plots. Lots of change, lots of sameness. We are simultaneously changing and not changing all the time. Just like all those molecules in our corporeal form. I read a magnificent book this week that’s about both—how we never change and how our life depends on our changing.
I’m one of the 12 people who did not read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, so Haddon’s facility with language came as a delightful surprise to me. I would teach this book, just for the original and powerful way he uses words. The clarity of his writing is nothing purple, it’s just simple words used in new or absolutely perfect ways: “Ten storeys below, a barge is being hauled upstream, water pleating around the tub’s snub bow.” I love pleating there. Nearly every page has some perfect word choice, some startling image.
But you don’t have to be a word nerd to love this story. It’s actually a few stories layered over each other, and that’s where the echoes come in. Like 100 Years of Solitude, Haddon plays with the idea that humans are just dancing the same steps over and over. Rather than butterflies and one South American town, however, Haddon uses the ancient legend of Pericles and the myth of the goddess Diana. It’s a retelling of Pericles in both modern and ancient times, but with amusing twists—including a cameo by William Shakespeare—and a refreshing revision to all the women’s roles in these ancient tales.
I listened to the book and the narrator was perfect, his crisp British voice slipping into a variety of convincing accents throughout the story, his pacing spot on. I’ve never done this before but I loved The Porpoise so much I went out and bought the book to look at some of the writing. (This is a drawback to the Audible experience, and why I avoid listening to literary fiction.)
The heart of this story depends on several characters being willing to change, and in so doing they disrupt the typical tropes of legend. The hero must face his greatest vulnerability (fatherhood, love duh), the princesses must save themselves. In its story and its execution, The Porpoise is a terrific mix of ancient and modern, somehow cohabitating peacefully and productively. Worth a try.
A few words from my nemesis
I don’t have a nemesis, but if I did, Elisabeth Egan might fit the criteria.
A long time ago I read and loved A Window Opens. A woman needs to go back to work when her husband leaves his job; chaos ensues. The story is set in the author’s hometown of Montclair but I felt like I was reading about a family on Maplewood Avenue. I loved it and hated it. Loved it because it’s a fun well-written novel. Hated it because it is basically the kind of book I feel like I could write but for unacceptable-to-me reasons have not.
Egan occasionally writes for The New York Times (including one of the greatest “how to survive your kid’s senior year of high school” essays ever) and this week her piece about summer reads is another love/hate recommendation. Her writing is so warm and witty, I tremble with fear at my own obsolescence as I suggest it.
She recommends a bunch of books I have not read, but they all sound like a perfect way to stave off heat exhaustion, which we’ll all need now that the one change NOBODY wanted is here for realz. Climate change. It’s going to be a stinky hot weekend. May your AC be cranked.